Part of coming of age is beginning to turn a critical eye on the world around you. What issues are people in your community facing? How can your particular skills be used for social change?
It’s questions like these that the students at Roy C. Ketcham High School in Wappingers Falls grapple with through the lens of art in Alison Keller’s class. Keller and her 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students are the creators of a new art exhibition on display now at Bank Square Coffeehouse in Beacon. The art—portraits of animals rescued by the Dutchess County SPCA—is for sale through a virtual auction and all proceeds will be donated to the animal shelter.
“As a class, we discussed issues in our local community and found one that everyone could stand behind,” say student representatives. Keller first began moderating these types of discussions because she knows that the students are already reckoning with the social issues that are all around them, but they may not have chances to explore them in the classroom. “In the public school system, you have students of every walk of life, and our job is not to teach them what to think. We’re teaching them to think. They’re navigating these issues and they all want to do good,” Keller says.
The discussions motivated the students to take action. Keller reached out to the SPCA and said the students wanted to make art to help the animals. The shelter enthusiastically agreed, and they collaborated with the school to create the vision for the fundraiser. The art class decided that each student would paint an animal that had been rescued by the SPCA. It was the shelter organizers that suggested the auction and the exhibit at the coffeehouse. “A public display gives [the art] life,” explains Maya Schmidt, the Marketing Director for the SPCA. In addition to honoring the students’ hard work, the display will bring the auction and the work of the SPCA to a wider audience and increase the chance of sales. Th positive community reception has been immediate with one painting already reaching a top bid of $300. The auction is open online until June 17, as is the exhibit.
Bank Square Coffeehouse, on Main Street in Beacon, is just a short walk from the train station and a central gathering place for the local community, meaning the art will be seen by both short-term visitors unwinding after a trip upstate as well as by local residents. The display is “another way of connecting with the community about the animals,” says Schmidt, who imagines viewers will resonate with one animal or another and perhaps be inspired to seek out more information.
At Bank Square, the students’ creative efforts have been carefully hung on the wall of a side room which functions as a coworking space. The art is as quirky and creative as the town of Beacon itself. One cat is painted blue, and its head swirls through a haze of music notes. A tiny flowered hat perches on the ear of a gray bunny. A dog jumps to catch a ringed planet in its mouth like a frisbee.
Keller sees her students’ artistic identities in the work. “The coolest thing is that with each of the pieces, even if I didn’t know the artist, I could tell you exactly whose is whose,” she says. And Schmidt sees the personalities of the animals in the art the same way Keller sees the personalities of her students. “[The students] clearly developed attachments to the animal each of them ‘adopted,’ and it really comes through in the work,” she says. “They really did an amazing job capturing what was so special about each animal.”
The DCSPCA is a no-kill animal shelter that operates as an independent charity relying on donations. In addition to helping animals get adopted by loving families, they also provide veterinary services and safety net housing for pets—anyone struggling with mental illness or escaping domestic violence and seeking temporary housing for their pets can work with one of the DCSPCA's referral partners, such as Grace Smith House. “The money from the auction goes to all of those things,” Schmidt says. “It helps the animals at the shelter and it helps animals who belong to members of the community.”
In many ways, this project is an instructive example of how to be a young community member in a small town: looking at the big problems in the world and, rather than drowning in despair, realizing you have a close-knit support there to make change alongside you.